WITH REBEKAH SIMMERS, AUTHOR OF THE KING'S SWORD, HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY AUTHOR INTERVIEW. HISTORICAL FICTION DAILY, A WEB MAGAZINE OF THE HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY - DECEMBER 19, 2022.
December 19, 2021
INTERVIEW BY REBEKAH SIMMERS
As a writer, professor, scholar, and interpreter, Julieta Almeida Rodrigues has traveled the world and witnessed history firsthand. She talks with Rebekah Simmers about how her life experiences have influenced her journey to historical fiction author and discusses her debut novel, Eleonora and Joseph.
How would you describe your book and its themes in a couple of sentences?
Eleonora and Joseph: Passion, Tragedy, and Revolution in the Age of Enlightenment is about three major historical figures of the Enlightenment, who lived both in Europe and the United States: Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, Abbé Correia da Serra and Thomas Jefferson. I compare and contrast their lives in a fictional way.
What attracted you to writing about this particular period of history and setting? How did you conduct your research for the novel?
Both the American and the French Revolutions radically changed the world at the time, and I wanted to explore the life of historical characters who had experienced those changes first-hand.
As you know, it takes years to "map" a life—any life—so I went constantly back and forth between fact (research) and fiction (narrative). Did Correia da Serra become a priest by vocation—yes or no? Was Jefferson a Jacobin—yes or no?
When writing this story, what was your best strategy for getting to know your characters? How did you "map" their lives?
In Eleonora and Joseph, my characters were real people, so I read as many contradictory sources as possible. I had pictures of what they looked like, and I kept scrutinizing them. Letters are also of paramount importance to understand the eighteenth century.
What was the drive to write about Eleonora as the heroine of the 1799 Neapolitan Revolution?
Eleonora paid the ultimate price—her life—for wishing to be free and to speak her truth. In the novel, the memoir she writes from prison is fictional, something out of my imagination—but my soul was with her all along. Somehow, my own life led me to understand, and wish to recount, her struggle. Courage is a silent quality—but easily recognizable in those who have it.
Can you tell us more about how your life's journey led you to becoming a historical novelist? In the Author's Page of your website, you write "Historical fiction turned out to be the venue that allows me to blend all the narratives of the life I currently lead," which is lovely. Why is that?
For many years, I just looked at the world from the standpoint of a diplomat's wife stationed in countries abroad. I didn't write anything, I just looked at "the Other." In retrospect, I cannot emphasize enough what an incredible school of learning that was. I observed the world, I talked to people, and, above all, I trusted my own intuition when examining the contrast. In this regard, it's fundamental to be able to look inwardly and be true to oneself—as Eleonora was. Later, when I realized my marriage was falling apart, I needed to change course. I became an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and, after that, an interpreter in Washington, DC. That is the part of my life I miss the most.
I discovered that I enjoy both the study of history and the description of events for which there is no historical record. You engage the imagination in ways that seem, from the start, impossible. I used that skill to describe the dialogues between Abbé Correia da Serra and Thomas Jefferson in Monticello.
I'd love to hear how being from Portugal influenced your writing.
It influenced me greatly. A writer cannot run away from her or his past but must embrace it. Writing is like breathing, it's the sum of you.
It sounds like your life experiences have a great impact on your creative work. Did you make it a habit to record your thoughts, memories, and experiences over the years? Did you keep a journal?
I kept a journal when I was in Moscow. I was there during the Soviet period. What I was seeing was so incredibly different from what I had read, that I wrote for emotional balance, to keep myself grounded. So, I left the city with more than 800 pages of notes and those were the basis of On the Way to Red Square. I still like that book. I might make a digital version of it soon. Since then, I never wrote a diary again. I find life —mine and others'—such a labyrinth, I have moved so much, I have met people from such different walks of life, that I keep all this information organized in my head (as if in drawers). By comparison, writing a diary seems tedious to me now, even if it is a useful crafting tool.
About creativity, is there any advice? Do you have any tips or tricks that you've employed over the years on finding success?
Oh, yes! Be focused: facts first. This is a lot of fun for me, I write to learn. I was recently reading Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters. In 1716, Montagu's husband was appointed Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and the couple traveled to Constantinople by land. Just imagine! I am about halfway through the book, and I ask myself: when is she going to arrive in Turkey, the territory I have in my mind? Well, she was already in the Ottoman empire, but I hadn't realized how vast it was in the eighteenth century. By the end of the evening, I had found maps describing the exact Ottoman empire's borders at the time. When focused, you find the facts. Some facts, at least.
Is your next novel based on real characters, like Eleonora and Joseph?
Only in part. The main character is from my imagination, and I love that. I have the freedom to decide what he does, how he acts or reacts to events. But most of the other characters are real people, they existed. I am writing again about the eighteenth century.
What is the last great book you read?
A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel.
Rebekah, thank you very much for this opportunity!